INTERVIEW: Making Space for Ourselves - Black Women and the Power of Art+Community

On October 7th, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center (PGAAMCC) will host Rated PG: Black Arts Festival, a festival to showcase local black women-identified artists and the first of its kind in the county. Festival events will explore beauty standards, identity, multi-generational traditions and sisterhood. It will also debut two exhibitions, “This Hair Deserves a March” and “Like Blood from a Stone,” that will be on view until January 2018.

The PGAAMCC stands as a monument to the Prince George’s black community in North Brentwood—a community space very much steeped in its history and actively imagining new futures for black collectivity in the museum. An event of this kind creates a fluidity between the museum and its community, and puts themselves in direct conversation with the issues that ail black women in our society. Black women are often seen as profitable to culture, but rarely are they valued for their contributions. As spaces arise to celebrate the full humanity and vitality of black women, we witness the full range in which black women have always existed. It is why I’m excited that a space for black women, though not exclusively, is being reserved in the institution to explore that range.

In a Q&A with the Executive Director of PGAAMCC, Maleke Glee, curator Yaya Bey, and artist Monique “Muse” Dodd, we discuss the upcoming festival, liberatory art-making and their vision for the future of the DMV arts ecosystem. It is a conversation I look forward to having with many others at the festival come October 7th.

 

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Ravon: What is the intention for the Rated PG: Black Arts Festival happening now? Why do you think these narratives need to be told in this moment?

Maleke: The intention of the Rated PG festival is to celebrate Black Womanhood, and its vastness. Our curator, Yaya Bey, has been very intentional on breaking the monolithic representation of Black Women in media. The limited narrative affects self identification, capacity for imagination, and treatment in society. I think these narratives need to be told in this moment to provide a self liberation that is healthy and progressive for a communal liberation. Having your image reflected is affirming; and further understanding another’s narrative is humanizing. I think the thoughts provoked in the exhibitions will allow for reflection, and the performances of the festival will create unapologetic, felt celebration.

Ravon: Tell me about the two shows you curated for the PGAAMCC. What is the inspiration for them?

Yaya: The shows, “This Hair Deserves a March” and “Like Blood from a Stone,” are parts of a series called “Tell the Truth About Me.” The overlapping theme is reclaiming black-woman narratives. While “This Hair Deserves a March” addresses falsehoods in narratives surrounding our aesthetic, “Like Blood from a Stone” addresses the truths about us that are often left untold.

Ravon: Tell me about your work that will show at the upcoming Rated PG?

Muse: I will be premiering a new body of work entitled La Negra de Nadie which translates roughly in English to “the black woman who belongs to no one.” It is a triptych which includes a self portrait inspired by the Colombian artist Enrique Grau’s painting La Mulata de Cartagenera. It is an ode to femininity and the Yoruba deity Oshun. My work is a reflection on beauty, autonomy, and power.

Ravon: What made the themes of this work timely? Why do you think these narratives need to be told at this moment?

Muse: This work is in honor of the divine feminine. Especially now, we have seen how toxic masculinity can be, when not balanced by femininity. Politically, socially, and culturally we need to respect the mother, the earth and each other in order to progress collectively and survive.

Yaya: It’s always the right time to talk about black women. Anytime I get a chance to put black women on a platform I do, because we need more opportunities to tell our own stories. Too often people tell our stories for us and do a bad job because it wasn't their story to tell in the first place.

Ravon: As an artist, how would you define your art-making practice? How do you know when an artwork is done?

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Muse: I don’t like to define my art-making practice, everything I do is art, it is creation. I find myself most inspired when I’m doing mundane things like riding the metro or washing dishes. I think my work is never finished but an ongoing conversation, but how I know it’s ready to be viewed by other people is when I look at it and it takes my breath away.

Ravon: Yaya, I know you’re also an artist as well. How would you define your
art-making practice? How did that influence your approach to the shows you exhibited?

Yaya: I tell stories and I provide platforms for other people to tell their stories. In everything I do I strive to be better at telling the truth. For this show—the task was telling the truth about black women and that required pulling from different perspectives and knowing when to step back and let perspectives that are not my own shine. Again I think the better at balance I get, the better I will get at telling the truth especially when it comes to black women as we are not a monolith and deserve to be shown as dimensional human beings.

Ravon: I greatly admire the effort and ability to curate—it is deeply careful and methodical work. However, it is a word that now circulates largely in many spaces, but I don’t think that deeper meaning always travels with it. What does “curate” mean to you? When is something like the exhibitions being shown during Rated PG done being curated? What’s that process like?

Yaya: To curate is to help a story come together. To me, art is storytelling and when you bring several voices together in an effort to tell a story the message is layered, and probably more honest because I think the truth requires more than one perspective. I don’t think I’m done curating these shows as of yet, I think I’m still pulling truth from places and asking the artists questions. In a lot of my work, I like to interview people and I’m still sort of in that interview stage.

Ravon: How do you see these shows fitting into the larger art scene and landscape in the North Brentwood community? In the DMV area? How do they lend themselves to a larger conversation?

Yaya: I think black women are a worthy topic of discussion no matter where you go. Here in the DMV, and really any where there are black women, we are major influencers and deserve to be celebrated.

Ravon: What can folks look forward to at the upcoming festival?

Maleke: Folks can look forward to meeting new people, creating memories and having a great time! I am most looking forward to our pop up beauty shop. We are doing new, interactive things in our gallery spaces; I’m excited to see how people engage.

Ravon: As a museum, what is the significance of the institution being a space for these types of events and dialogue?

Maleke: Due to a long history of colonizing narratives, and appropriation of sacred artifacts, communities of color have not always felt welcomed in museum spaces. Museums fail the community when they speak for a community; I think the significance of community events and dialogue is that the history barriers and culture keepers have ownership of their narrative. What brought me to PGAAMCC as an educator and community partner was their openness for public involvement in the exhibitions and programming.

Ravon: What inspiration are you gaining from the local artist community to showcase certain work and perspectives?

Maleke: I think everyone in the DMV is a hustler! I think that is the inspiration I draw, it encourages me to be brave and bold in sharing my ideas and talents. I am inspired to find ways to support, sustain and celebrate the work artist are doing. I am really enjoying Goldlink’s At What Cost. The project exemplifies community support, as the DMV narrative is told by Goldlink, his features, and even in the cover art by Darius Moreno. Right now I am most inspired by artists in the region who are telling intimate stories of community, artists such as Lionel Frazier and Larry Cook.

Ravon: I am really excited for Rated PG’s role in uplifting the perspectives of black artists, and especially those of women-identified artists. There is a spotlight on these perspectives right now, particularly in our current political and social climate. As the director, what role do you think the museum has in deconstructing certain narratives? Are or should museums be “neutral” spaces?

Maleke: I really feel uncomfortable with the term “neutral space,” I have been teasing with the idea of neutrality in my career. However, my career is so tied to artistry, and neutral art does not exist. Art is political, cultural, religious, etc. I think the museum does have a role in elevating stories that need visibility. As it is, Black women, and trans-women are grievously oppressed in our society. The ways of oppression are both political and personal (familiar, intimate), they are in ways implicit and explicit. The museum is a safe space, a healing ground—I think the Black Arts Festival heralds our invitation to the community. The museum looks to listen to the community, and allow them to share their stories. I think the museum stands alongside anyone being oppressed. We should use our platform to activate changes, educate our community, and connect networks.

When I think of deconstructing existing narratives, I think of creating a new table when the one that exists does not serve you. I suggest an investment in our narratives, our institutions, our businesses, our families, our community.

Ravon: As an artist, do you feel a responsibility for your work to deconstruct certain narratives? Is art always an intervention? Should it be?

Muse: I believe the role of an artist is to question how we view things, to help us better understand the world we live in and ourselves. I think it is important to have a multi-narrative view on a group of people (especially minorities). However, I also believe that if all our work is reactionary then we are letting the oppressors drive our focus and creation. Toni Morrison put it best when she said, “racism is a distraction.” My audience is first and foremost black people, anyone else who sees my works and appreciates is a plus but not necessary. This is the greatest gift I have been given, and I will use it in service to my people.

Ravon: Who is or are some women-identified artist(s) that are inspiring you right now? Who should folks be thinking about?

Muse: I am so inspired by a lot of the amazing artists included in the show, like Nakeya Brown and Adrienne Gaither. If you don’t know who these ladies are then you need to get hip and come check out their work October 7th! Nakeya’s work is so layered but reads very clearly, black womanhood oozes out of her work and you can smell the Pink oil sheen through her images. And Adrienne’s work is amazing, her approach and application are unique and precise. Black women just make me so happy.

Maleke: There are too many to count! My artistic influences and mediums are varied—

Issa Rae. I love Insecure and the strong sense of identification we have with the characters. It’s like memes, we get it so clearly! Princess Nokia. I am living for the inclusion of self care, spirituality, and ancestral ties. Azealia Banks! I am an unapologetic stan of Azealia Banks. She is complicated, as we all are. I most admire her scholarship in Blackness, and how that influences her music in very subtle and explicit ways.

Zora Neale Hurston. I am in a Cultural Sustainability master’s program; I admire Hurston’s auto-ethnography. The relationship between her anthropology and literary writing is inspiring. Emma Amos. Her style makes me think of my Aunties. Centered on relationships, and held with care, rich with history, and bold personality.

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I am also a fan of all the artists in the exhibition, and am glad we are showcasing their work. I have followed Nakeya Brown for some time, and love her historical ties of beauty, objectification, and labor in work that feels very modern.

Yaya: Right now I’m inspired by my friends. The women that I know like Alanna Fields, Nakeya Brown, Lakela Brown. Women who make great art but also women I see living lives and making it work. Right now I’m really into balance and fullness, so I’m inspired by women I see doing both. The women I know personally and see raise children, or balance student/artist life or teacher/artist life inspire me strive for fullness. Also these women are amazing at what they do.

Ravon: So, I’ve been living in D.C. for a few years now, and I assume I was like many people when I first moved to the DMV area. I wrote the area off as not having a vibrant arts and culture scene. So much of that has to do with the way the area is changing and undergoing development. What would you say to those who assume the area has no artist-community?

Maleke: I would tell newcomers to the D.C. region who assume there is a lack of arts culture and community that I understand. I understand that in a gentrifying city most of what you see are ploys to attract particular demographics, these artistic ploys do not represent the community of Washington, D.C. I also think, and of course cannot speak for time beyond mine—however, I think, in this region the arts culture is within youth culture. Many adults moving here, without the experience of growing up here, will miss the rich creativity and community of young artists.

However, there are many small organizations that are well respected and do impactful work, like diamonds in the rough. I would encourage newcomers to visit art spaces, and talk to the people in the room…you will be sure to learn something new, that leads to another opportunity.

The African American artist community has been dispersed among the region, as one of many effects of gentrification. While I initially was disheartened by the forceful separation of art and business communities, I realized the potential. We now have folks spread across the region, displaced persons, and like seeds we can grow our artistry, and create networks of support.

Muse: If you don’t think DC has an arts scene, dig a little deeper.

Yaya: Anywhere black people are there is art.

Ravon: In 5 or 10 years, what do you hope will have been created to support the DMV arts ecosystem?

Maleke: In the next 5 to 10 years, I hope that the museum can expand our capacity to broaden our reach within the region, supporting other local institutions and artists.

This will create a model for other African American enclaves, a model of communal creativity and entrepreneurial support. As the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center we are a historical database for the cultural and artist contributions of Africans Americans in our county Entrepreneurship, and the intention toward economic liberation is a part of our culture. I wish to patronize and herald PG County owned and operated businesses.

I also hope there will be an institution that is specifically for Go-Go music and culture. I imagine a Go-Go museum, and educational center.

Muse: More funding and institutions that specifically uplift artists of color. The talent is there but we need to cultivate more opportunities for artists in the city.

Yaya: I hope that there will be more opportunities for black women in the arts. I think the art scene is very much male dominated and too many resources are going to white artists to tell the stories of black and brown people. So I guess my hope really is that black women/black people are afforded more opportunities to tell their own stories and are supported with the resources to do so.

Ravon: What song or album is motivating your work right now?

Muse: I’ve been rocking with Celia Cruz’s La Negra tiene tumbao, it just gets me energized and ready to dance and conquer the world.

Yaya: Nina Simone, “Wild is the Wind.” That song calms my nerves and reminds me to stay true to self.

Maleke: Princess Nokia’s 1992 Deluxe Edition is inspiring me right now. An honorable mention, Rico Nasty’s Tales of Taco Bella.

Ravon: “Blocklist’” is my anthem.

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Learn more about the PGAAMCC’s Rated PG: BLack Arts Festival.

Ravon A. Ruffin